Review – Hot Wheels Unleashed
I have to begin this review by stating something unexpected. I am more than confident that Forza Horizon 5 will be the best racing game released in 2021. That’s already kinda obvious. Now, the second place was up for grabs up until recently. One would have imagined that this spot would have been taken by WRC 10 or Cruis’n Blast. But I’m here to state what I would have never imagined in my wildest dreams. Hot Wheels Unleashed, a licensed racing game based on Mattel die-cast toys crafted by Milestone, is currently the best racing game released in 2021. If you don’t consider the inevitable juggernaut that is Microsoft’s open world racing series, that is.
Who would have thought? I know Milestone is more than capable of crafting a good racing game. That’s all they do, after all. The thing is, they are all about simulation-heavy titles, and with the exception of 2018’s Gravel, they have basically spent their entire time developing a publishing newcomer-unfriendly motorcycle-based racing games, such as MotoGP, Ride, and MXGP. I would have never imagined they would have been the ideal candidate to develop a family-friendly arcade racing game based on Mattel’s juggernaut of a die-cast franchise, one which is extremely dear to my heart. Here we are, though. Those folks have knocked it out of the park with this completely insane racing title.
We’ve had a few Hot Wheels racing games in the past, and for the most part, they were… okay. Contrary to what logic would imply, most of them were set in fantasy or futuristic courses, not focusing on the joy of racing actual miniatures in toy-like environments. They were closer to Wipeout than Re-Volt, that’s what I’m trying to say. They were fine, but forgettable. Hot Wheels Unleashed is different. It wants you to pretend you’re actually driving as a miniature in real-life environments, but with enough features to make the game go completely insane and unrealistic, in the best of ways.
Every single track is comprised of a combination between classic Hot Wheels plastic tracks and real-life objects scattered throughout the environment. Ironically enough, the real-life obstacles are not the biggest selling point of the track design. These plastic runways are full of turbo pads, ramps, loops, traps, and even magnetic fields that basically allow you to drive upside down or in any other position you can imagine. In short, these tracks are designed just like the completely insane courses from F-Zero GX, for example. You’ll be driving on the ceiling of a university classroom, jumping to your imminent death from the edge of a construction building, and much more.
It wouldn’t be a good racing game if its controls weren’t up to par. Even though Milestone is known for ultra-realistic yet complicated controls, that wasn’t the case in Hot Wheels Unleashed. It’s a full-fledged arcade racer, where all you need to do is accelerate and drift. The more you drift, the faster you’ll fill up your turbo meter. Depending on the kind of car you’re driving, you’ll either need to fill up individual meters for a one-time boost, or have one continuous nitrous gauge you’ll need to keep an eye on. That’s the closest to a strategic mindset that will be demanded from you, thankfully enough. This is all about racing around like a lunatic and hoping you won’t fall to your demise during a tight corner or upside-down section.
The presentation is absolutely incredible for a AA licensed game. Milestone included a ton of miniatures for you to choose, including classic Hot Wheels staples: real-life cars like the Mustang and the Fiat 500, and to my complete surprise, cars from other multimedia franchises, such as the van from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the DeLorean from Back to the Future, and K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider. All the miniatures look the part, and with the exception of the pop culture cars, are fully customizable. The tracks are well-designed, and the game runs at a rock-solid 60fps, no matter how many cars are onscreen at any given moment.
The soundtrack isn’t bad either! There are two kinds of tunes in Hot Wheels Unleashed: racing tunes and menu tunes. The racing soundtrack is mostly comprised of dubstep and drum & bass beats that are a perfect fit for this type of game. Weirdly enough, they are the “weakest” songs in the package. The tunes played whenever you’re exploring a menu are downright amazing, being mostly comprised of funk and new wave beats. One song sounds almost identical to Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk“, so you know there’s good stuff included in here.
One thing that might catch players off guard is how you acquire new vehicles. Simply put, they are given to you at random by opening “blind boxes”, which are basically loot boxes. Wait! Don’t get mad! You can only acquire blind boxes, as well as the currency needed to buy more of them, by completing races and challenges in the game’s gigantic career mode. Hot Wheels Unleashed is quite generous with its in-game currency, showering you with gifts with every race you complete. You don’t even need to win a race in order to get the goods, as even a third place podium finish will grant you with money for new cars, as well as upgrade tokens. Yep, you can even upgrade your (non-licensed) cars.
I’ve saved the best for last. Sure, Hot Wheels Unleashed‘s career mode and gameplay are fantastic, but what really won me over was its track editor. Have you ever played with Hot Wheels racetracks as a kid? Do you remember creating the dumbest and most over-the-top tracks by basically throwing your car off a table, then proceeding to pick it up and pretend it was racing on the wall or the ceiling? Well, you can do even crazier stuff in here.
I cannot stress enough how amazing this track editor is. It lets you create any kind of insane rollercoaster monstrosity your mind can come up with, with more twists, turns, and loops than a whale’s intestine. As long you can connect one end to the other, and as long as you can complete a lap with one of the game’s cars in order to validate the track, you can save it and share it to the world. It takes a while to get used to some of the editor’s commands, as they are a bit tricky, but once you get a hold of them, you’ll spend as much time creating the next big F-Zero-esque challenge as you will spend playing Hot Wheels Unleashed itself.
Milestone could have just created a simple licensed racing game with a handful of classic Hot Wheels miniatures, crafted half a dozen courses, called it a day, and people wouldn’t have minded. It wouldn’t have caused an impact, but they wouldn’t have cared. Instead, they ended up creating a juggernaut of a racing game, featuring an enormous career mode, every single Hot Wheels miniature imaginable, a fast-paced arcade-like control system, and one of the best track creators in history. Hot Wheels Unleashed is way better than I could have ever imagined, and I’m absolutely addicted to it. Are there better racing games that came out or are due to come out this year? Absolutely. But I doubt any of them will surprise me as much as this game did.
Between the crazy track designs, excellent framerate, and tons of models being well-recreated in digital form, Hot Wheels Unleashed does an unexpectedly good job with its visuals.
Hot Wheels Unleashed‘s controls are really simple to learn, but take some time to master, as they should. The physics are simplified when compared to other Milestone games. The Track Editor controls are a bit confusing at first, but you’ll get a hang of them after a while.
High-octane electronic music and exaggerated engine noises while you’re racing. You’ll have some of the catchiest funk and new wave beats blessing your ears while you’re exploring the game’s menus.
Hot Wheels Unleashed is an endlessly replayable racing opus with tons of amazing vehicles (including licensed ones!), a huge career mode, great controls, and possibly the best track editor ever put in a racing game.
Final Verdict: 9.0
Hot Wheels Unleashed is available now on PS4, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, PC, and Switch.
Reviewed on Xbox Series S.
A copy of Hot Wheels Unleashed was provided by the publisher.